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Sleepyhead - Mark Billingham

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Author: Mark Billingham / Genre: Crime / Thriller

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    8 Reviews
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      16.10.2010 10:56
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      I read this book not long ago and really enjoyed it. It is a crime thriller, written by Mark Billingham, about a young girl who was found dead. At first it was thought she had suffered a stroke but once they looked over her body found bruising to the back of her neck and head. The pathologist thought that she had probably been killed by someone squeezing an artery in the back of her head which cuts off the blood to the brain so making it look like a stroke. The police man in charge of the investigation, Thorpe, decides to look through the records to see if he can find any other girls who died in similar circumstances and finds that this is not the only one and that it looks like there is a serial killer on the loose.

      Then another girl is found in the hospital car park still alive and Thorpe rushes to the hospital only to find the girl, Alison Willets is alive but can not move her body at all, she is like she can understand what you are saying to her and can hear you but can not respond to you in any way.

      The story is quite scary as it goes inside Alison's head so you know what she is thinking as she can see out of her eyes but that is all she can manage to do and even then she cant move her eyes from side to side, just look straight ahead, but her brain is working as normal other than being paralised and she is locked inside this unmoving body.

      You could really feel Alison's agony and fright like when she hears people in her room moving about but cant see who they are.

      I really enjoyed reading this book, and am glad to see that they have now made it into a tv series which is being shown on Sky One at the moment. It is a brilliant story and I hope the tv series will live up to the book.

      This review was written originally back in October 2010 hence the reference to the tv series. I am amazed to see that the book is currently being sold on Amazon for £60!!

      Copied to Ciao under username Harveydog52

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      31.03.2010 23:39
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      A great first book from Mark Billingham and a sign of things to come.

      I grew up reading Agatha Christie, Nancy Drew, Famous Five and a series of mystery books by an author who's name escapes me at present and always loved them. Therefore I'm not quite sure why I've spent the past 8 years or so avoiding Crime Fiction, however after my boyfriend nagging me to move out of my comfort zone and his sister coming round with a pile of books bigger than some houses I know have which primarily consisted of crime fiction novels. I began to read them again- being me I began with the one that seemed appealing and became hooked to anything and everything by the author (Mary Higgins Clark), if she's on here I will be reviewing some of her books in the near future. We also began obsessively watching Jonathan Creek so crime fiction has been very much a staple of the last 6 weeks. It was therefore inevitable that I would pick up Sleepyhead the time for this came last Friday.

      The book is the first of Mark Billingham's that I have read and I understand that it is his first book also. The book is about an investigator Tom Thorne and his investigation into the Sleepyhead murders, the killer does not kill his victims in the traditional sense of the word or intention of serial killers. Instead he is attempting to make them live in a living death state, by causing them to have a stroke by locating certain nerves in the back of the necks.

      The plot is as complex as any other crime novel leaving you guessing until near the end by introducing characters and subplots. Also wonderfully for British readers is set in England, and not just London but has more realistic settings and locations. It also looks at bureaucratic issues which cause the NHS some problems and this is a nice underlying theme of the book without it having heavy propaganda which can interfere with plots in certain books and films.

      The story is told primarily from Thorne's perspective but parts are also told by the character who is suffering with 'locked in' syndrome.
      Tom Thorne is a great character and I look forward to reading the other books with him in including Scaredy Cat, Lazy Bones and the latest one Blood Line as he is in the middle of his career in Sleepy Head and obviously has an interesting past which I look forward to learning more about.

      This is an interesting novel and well worth reading if you enjoy crime fiction. If like me you've not read Crime Fiction for a few years or in fact have never read it, Sleepy Head offers a great introduction to the genre. The premise is good enough to be a film and if you enjoy watching films which keep you guessing and enjoy reading then you should give the crime fiction genre a go.

      It's available for 1p on Amazon with the £.275 p+p on top, can often be found in a range of charity shops or from libraries and of course you can always buy a new copy for £6.99. It may well be on a buy one get one free or similar offer at Waterstones or WH SMITHS. Enjoy

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        16.06.2009 16:29
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        UK crime noir done well

        As a fan of crime fiction I am drawn towards the dark streets of America. There is something about the size of the country and the ability to own a gun that makes it seem more dangerous to me. Crime noir fits perfectly into a world of drug trafficking, slang and machine guns - not so well into landed gentry, cups of tea and the ability to queue. Although the UK may seem quaint compared to our larger friend across the water, this is a fact that increasingly not true. Knives and guns are on the street and what's worse is that there are an increasing amount of people out there willing to use them. Crime Noir is ripe for a UK revival and perhaps in Mark Billingham we have the author. His debut 'Sleepy Head' may just show this.

        The first time the police knew they had a serial killer on their hands was the first time that someone survived an attack. A killer has been targeting women and putting them in a choke hold until they die. At least this is what the police assumed they were doing until they realise that the killer is not committing murder on purpose, but trying to put their victims into a coma by forcing them to stroke. Looking back in their files they notice various healthy women have died of strokes recently. A task force is set up to investigate with troubled officer Thorne a leading investigator. With a dogged reputation Thorne is seen as a maverick and when he starts to stalk a suspect he appears out of control. Will Thorne's hunches be proved right or wrong, he could be the only thing standing between a maniac and their next victim.

        'Sleepy Head' is a crime thriller that places a lot of emphasis on the thrills. The books starts almost instantly and never lets go. I was very impressed how the case was opened up in such a fluid style, introducing us to Thorne very succinctly and the case he is embroiled in. This sense of timing is key to why 'Sleepy' works. Whenever there threatens to be a lull in proceedings Billingham throws another curveball into the mix. This is not to say that there is not some much needed downtime; by balancing the ups and downs Billingham is dictating the thrills as he wishes.

        The story itself is helped a lot by the character of Thorne. I have read later books in the series and did not like the character feeling he is a little selfish and close minded. This problem does not occur in this the character's debut as we learn enough about him to be interesting, without having access to his multiple flaws. The nature of the character is one of obsession; he is haunted by the victims and feels unable to relax until justice is served. This means that he is very intense and alienates those around him. As an anti hero he is great to read about, especially this early on. It is a shame that Billingham overloads his personality in future cases. The other characters in the book are not fully realised yet as everything is taken from the perspective of Thorne and the killer, two people who are interested in their own needs, rather than others.

        With a great flow throughout I have to admit that I worked out what was going to happen, surprisingly this did not lessen the tension. My experience of the genre allowed me to work out what was the likely conclusion. This was due to Billingham dropping a few hints throughout the book to those paying close attention. I always appreciate a crime author who allows the reader to work out the perpetrator themselves if they can.

        With its very British setting a damning indictment of both the British police force and the NHS Billingham has created a true UK noir story. The violence and darkness did not feel out of place when viewed through the cynical eyes of Thorne. From the get go Billingham creates a chilling novel that is paced well throughout, his willingness to provide subtle clues can only be seen as a bonus. 'Sleepy Head' is a dark and intense crime thriller that feels refreshingly British; I certainly recommend it to fans of Rankin or Connolly.

        Author: Mark Billingham
        Year: 2001
        Price: amazon uk - £5.49
        play.com - £5.49

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          26.07.2007 15:11
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          those who died, were the lucky ones.....

          Mark Billingham's debut is actually in some ways a slightly better novel than his follow-up but still lacks a bit of the depth of character that books like these really need to establish a series.

          This time around, we get to see how D.I Thorne and D.C Holland first came together as they investigate a series of gruesome murders that turn out to be botched attempts to put young women into comatose states.

          Allison Willetts is one of his first victims and the only "success" to date suffering as she now is with "locked-in" syndrome- able to percieve things happening around her but suffering a paralysis so severe that even blinking becomes a chore.

          One of the original aspects about this novel is the way parts of the story are told from Allison's albeit limited view-point and it seems as though Billingham is aiming for this kind of hook with each of his novels.

          That said, once again Thorene and his colleagues just sem a little....well.... dull and there is not enough spark in them to keep me regarding this as anything else as an okay way to spend some time. Whjen I read I like to be absorbed by what I'm reading and be totally drawn in and, try as I might, these books just don't sem to be able to do it for me.

          Having said that, this isn't a bad way to spend a couple of days and there are a lot worse crime authors out there with regular publishing deal;s but the problem I fear is that there is so much competiyion that if you do not enjoy an author you can readily abandon him for someone else at the drop of a hat.

          By all means, give this a go but don't expect to be totally blown away.... at 399 pages, at least it isn't a lengthy read

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          28.12.2006 20:08
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          An excellent read

          I read my first Mark Billingham book, actually number five in the Tom Thorne series, a couple of months ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. Having heard from several people that his first four books were even better, I was really looking forward to reading this. As a huge fan of crime fiction, I'm always glad to find another good author, and Mark Billingham is certainly one of those. This is his first book featuring Tom Thorne.

          A sharp-eyed psychologistnotes that the death of a number of young stroke victims may not be the coincidence that it first appeared to be. Then the fourth victim, Alison, survives, although she is unable to speak or move in anyway, suffering from a condition called locked-in syndrome. Tom Thorne becomes involved in the investigation and soon works out that the fact that Alison is still alive is not the good fortune that he thought - her attacker and the murderer of the other victims was not actually intending the victims to die - he or she planned to keep them in a vegetative state. And it is unlikely that Alison is the last victim.

          The girls were all drugged before their attack and it seems clear that the theft a few years before from a hospital in Leicester of the drug in question is related to the case. At the same time, Thorne becomes involved with the doctor in charge of Alison's care, who happens to be the friend of one of the potential drug thieves, Jeremy Bishop. Thorne is convinced that Bishop is responsible for the deaths, especially when he begins receiving personal notes from the murderer. Yet Bishop has an alibi. Can Thorne prove his gut reaction or is he persecuting an innocent man? Will he be able to solve the investigation before more girls are murdered?

          As often happens when starting a book of which I have great expectations, I was a little disappointed to begin with. The plot seemed to be far more straightforward than many works of crime fiction I have read recently - not that this is always a bad thing, but I was expecting something that involved a bit more brainpower. This quickly changed though and I soon found myself being drawn into the story.

          Locked-in syndrome is not a condition that I am familiar with, but the fact that Alison can hear and eventually manages to communicate to a degree is certainly an original twist to the story. I liked the way that Alison's narrative, which is basically her thought processes as she lies in hospital aware of what is going on but unable to respond, shapes the story. I always like to find out something about the victim and finding out what happened from her point of view really helped bring the story to life.

          Tom Thorne is nothing new or special as a police detective. He is a maverick, who works in his own way, spurns side-kicks unless they are useful, and has problems holding down a woman. Gosh, where have I heard that before? It seems that all police detectives are either mavericks like Thorne, Rebus, Alan Banks etc or are educated and deadly dull like Adam Dagleish or Lord Peter Wimsey. Having said that, I do quite like Thorne. He doesn't particularly add anything to the story, but he certainly doesn't take anything away from it either.

          Pace-wise, everything seemed to happen a little slowly to start with. However, Billingham kept my interest up by constantly switching the emphasis of the story from one character to another. And when the pace did kick in, it really did begin to gallop along, which made the build-up all the more worth-while. During the last couple of chapters, my heart was beating really fast in sympathy with Thorne's predicament; something that has to be the sign of a good book as far as I'm concerned.

          Much as I like reading detective novels from over the years, it is always good to find a new author whose work is modern and up-to-date. I can see this book appealing to a wider audience than just fans of crime fiction; those who like the literary equivalent of action films and thrillers will enjoy this book. Highly recommended.

          The book is available from play.com for £5.49. Published by Time Warner books, it has 416 pages. ISBN: 9780751531466

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            01.03.2006 13:12
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            serial killer who doesn't mean to kill in a realistic London setting

            'Sleepyhead' was Mark Billingham's debut as a crime writer and was received very well. I have enjoyed the novel, but I think that it had a lot of faults of the typical debut - I have now read the other instalments of the series and there are better ones out there, my favourite being 'Scaredy Cat' (this was one that really scared me and it's not an easy feat for a pop-book!).

            'Sleepyhead' is a serial-killer novel, set in the contemporary London and featuring DI Tom Thorne as the main character.

            Thorne is one of your typical fictional detectives: a hardened but sensitive copper, pig headed, stubborn and generally very good at what he's doing and rather bad at getting on with his superiors and some of his peers. He reminds me of Rankin's Rebus which is not necessarily a bad thing but doesn't make Thorne a particularly original invention. He's divorced; listens to country music and an occasional trance piece, likes his beer and wine but doesn't smoke or drink spirits. In a post-modernist way he's rather aware of the fact that he is a typical crime-novel figure but seems happy enough with it. Thorne has a sidekick in the person of Dave Holland, a young policeman torn between following a safe course of career and doing something worthwhile. The best friend is a gay Mancunian pathologist called Hendricks - one of the best creations of the book overall.

            These characters re-appear in the novels following this one and I have to say that 'Sleepyhead' does a good job of introducing them. Despite the fact that they are all rather 'of a type', they have enough individuality to produce a good framework for the Billingham's story.

            There is also another rather important character in the novel: London. The feeling of particular places is well captured and anybody who knows the capital will probably enjoy matching the descriptions to their own experience of the city.


            During the course of 'Sleepyhead' Thorne investigates a series of murders in which the victim is killed by somebody skilfully applying pressure to their arteries in order to cause stroke. One of the victims, who becomes one of the principal characters of the novel - Alison - survives in the state of what is called 'locked-in-syndrome' - conscious, able to hear, see and think but totally (at least initially) unable to communicate or move. Not before long the police learn that Alison was not a mistake, she was the killer's first success. He wants them like that, suspended between life and death, with only brain function and sensory input working; eternally bed-and-machine-bound.

            The modus operandi of the killer is one of the best features of the novel. I suppose this is how serial killer books differentiate: either by the way that murders are committed or the motives/personality of the killer. In this sense 'Sleepyhead' is definitely 'how' book and the idea of killer for whom killing constitutes a failure is truly ingenious and very entertaining.

            On the other hand the 'why' and 'who' of the killer were a bit of a downer: I almost never can guess who the culprit is in murder mysteries, but in this case I did with no particular problems and quite early on. I am not saying it's a major disadvantage, as you never really know till the end and there was still some excitement in finding out, but readers who prefer their crime mysteries to stay mysterious till the final unravelling might find it a problem. It's not THAT obvious, of course. Billingham throws red herrings and false trials at the reader quite frequently, but they didn't work for me.

            At the end of the novel we do get the 'why' for this particular killer and although it's not a terribly convincing one, it stays just about this side of plausibility.

            The novel is narrated from three main points of view: one of Tom Thorne's; one of Alison and one of the killer; though other characters also have an occasional say. Most of its bulk is devoted to relating Thorne's side of the events, but to me Alison's parts were the highlight of the book: monologues of locked-in, gutsy Geordie girl, alternately raving, raging and joking; providing commentary on the action and a poignant closure to the whole story.


            'Sleepyhead' seems to suffer from some fairly typical debut problems: the main character is definitely still finding his voice, and the novel could do with a bit of editing.

            There is a whole chunk of text related to frotteuristic exploits of a minor character on the tube, which has no bearing on the story, doesn't fool you for a minute into thinking that it relates to the killer and makes no sense whatsoever - definitely a section that should have been edited out.

            Thorne has a 'skeleton' in his past relating to a case of 15 years before; this experience haunts him and to some extent explains why he behaves the way he does. The story is frequently hinted at and mentioned and eventually told in detail in one of the chapters. To me it's something that I would be happier to see as staying vague - it has no actual bearing on the current case except as an influence on Thorne and certainly its inclusion does not improve the construction of the novel.

            The writing quality in 'Sleepyhead' is variable: some parts, especially the internal monologues of Alison and the musings of the killer work very well. The chapters written in the free indirect style describing Thorne's view of the events are amongst the most strained and have bit too many dead sentences for my personal liking. Some imagery seems to be purposefully designed to be dark and grotty, but instead ends up being almost funny: "envy burns through his body like caustic soda dissolving fat in a drain". Chandler it ain't, really. And what is "ersatz dross"?

            But nothing is so bad as to detract form essentially escapist pleasures of reading a decent serial killer novel. Some paragraphs, especially the ones written in a natural, simple manner with a bit of pathos thrown in work quite well: "These were typical murders. Ordinary killings, simple, banal and understandable. People dying because of anger or frustration or a basic lack of space. Dying for a grand cause or a stupid comment or a few pence. Wives and husbands killing with hammers and fists, or men being men with drink and knives, or drug dealers holding guns as casually as combs".

            The level of gore is acceptable: Billingham doesn't wallow too much in the detailed anatomical descriptions of dead bodies even though they are there; there are also several rather bloody episodes including the final climax. I would rate the gore factor as about 7 out of 10 as far as murder mysteries go, so not for the terribly squeamish, but not overdone either.

            It might have been my mood, but I didn't find 'Sleepyhead' scary. There weren't any moments when I felt viscerally moved or wanted to hide under the duvet; but then I am not particularly scared of serial killers and see them similarly to dragons and other fictional monsters; even though I do realise that some are very much real.


            ***Verdict***

            Overall, I enjoyed reading 'Sleepyhead'; mostly because of the unusual way the murders were committed and because of the good use Billingham made of the character of Alison.

            The leading characters (Thorne, Holland, Hendricks) worked OK, but the first two were perhaps bit too formulaic for my liking.

            The problems I had with 'Sleepyhead' related mostly to stumbling writing style, especially in the sections written from Thorne's perspective; the construction of the novel could also be improved by removal of some of the scenes (the tube one, the details of Thorne's case from 15 years ago).

            Despite its faults it was certainly a promising debut and I have to say that the next instalment of DI Thorne's story ('Scaredy Cat') was significantly improved.

            Overall I am wavering here - this time between three and four stars. Considering that the demands of the genre were fulfilled rather well and the criticism I had of the novel related more to the general writing and construction quality, I will be generous and give four.


            *****

            The book is available on Amazon for £5.59 for a paperback; and in the marketplace form £0.44 (plus postage, of course).

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              28.04.2004 01:10
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              An exception to a rule for me, the serial killer series I will read

              Alison Willetts lies in a hospital bed, able to see, hear and feel but not to move or communicate. The police team investigating her case soon identify Alison as the victim of a serial killer who has murdered several women in a similar way. Alison seems to be his first failure.

              However, Detective Inspector Tom Thorne isn't so sure. He believes that Alison's condition, referred to as Locked In Syndrome, was the real aim of the killer, and that the woman in the hospital bed is his first success.

              This is the premise of Mark Billingham's first novel, an impressive debut police procedural and the first in a series of 3 so far.

              I love crime fiction but usually avoid serial killer stories, but Sleepyhead was one of the novels which persuaded me I can no longer say I do not or will not ever read them any longer. My online reading group chose this as its group read and so I read it in order to be able to participate. This book and the two that have followed in the same series did a great deal to convince me that serial killer books can be intelligent, with the good characterisation and something worthwhile to say, as I like in my favourite crime novels.

              Sleepyhead is set in North London, in several areas where I live or work or have done in the past. Writing about real places accurately but unobtrusively, so mistakes don't pull the reader out of enjoying a story, is a real challenge to the novelist and Mark Billingham rises to it well.

              The story shifts between several viewpoints, most importantly including those of the detective, the victim in her hospital bed, and the killer. Both first person and third person narrative are used, making the switches between characters clearer.

              Tom Thorne is a complicated but intelligent detective, and is rather more realistic than many well known detective creations. Unlike P D James' Adam Dalgliesh, he is not especially posh and he is not a poet in his spare time. He sometimes behaves rashly but this comes from his heart, and he is passionate about his work and cares deeply about justice for Alison. Perhaps in some ways he remains another kind of mythical police detective - he is possibly still a bit too good to be true - but I enjoyed reading about him.

              He does have faults - he is very stubborn, first in insisting on being allowed to pursue his line of enquiry but then in going after evidence to prove what he suspects for much of the book. If he was right, I wanted him to succeed but I was not too sure he was.

              One popular way for crime writers to put flesh on their detective characters' bones recently is to provide the main protagonist with a strong interest in music. This works better if you are familiar with the singers and bands concerned, but if I like the characters I often explore some of the references. Tom Thorne is a real fan of country music, and it must be Mark Billingham's fault that I recently bought a Johnny Cash CD.

              Alison is the other most significant character in the book. Unlike most victims in crime novels, she is not dead, and her thoughts, boredom, frustration, loneliness and anger are presented as a first person narrative printed in italics. She is immobile in her hospital bed. Of course she is furious and is trapped in a really appalling situation. She's very witty, bright and funny, but she's no saint, she has lots of quite bitchy thoughts about people too. It provides a very different perspective on a crime novel to read the thoughts of the victim this way, at the same time as being told about the police investigation.

              Sleepyhead also introduces other members of the police team and Alison's doctor Anne, and an array of other characters. I am not describing all the characters in detail because it's difficult to do so without revealing too much, in my view.

              I really like Mark Billingham's writing style and pacing. While Mark Billingham has also had a successful career as a stand up comedian, this is a serious novel in which some serious issues are treated with great care and skill. Yet, there are moments when something is said that is funny in a very sad or frightening situation.

              I read this book with some reluctance but by the end was keen to read on. I finished reading Scaredy Cat recently, the second book in the series featuring the same detective, perhaps even better than the first. Now I'm looking for Lazybones. All the books feature serial killers, but they are in a select category of serial killer books I will make an exception for.

              Time Warner Paperbacks
              Paperback - 4 July, 2002

              Availability: Readily available in paperback and widely stocked by libraries and bookshops. Cover price £6.99 for paperback, Amazon stock the book for £5.59.

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                08.10.2001 21:37
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                This has to be one of the most thrilling and exciting book's that I have ever read and what with this being Mark Billinghams first go at writing and a complete break away from his stand up comedy it is a masterpiece and clearly this is where is skills lie. I live in North London and this book is all based in areas that a go to all the time and some of the crime scenes are very familiar to me which really gets the imagination going even more so than normal. There is a killer on the loose and DI Thorne has been chosen by the killer as the one to track him down,but killing is not what this maniac really wants to do he wants to but his victims into a permenant state of paralysis while keeping all wits about them not dead not really alive but in between. This story does contain a love intrest but it only adds to the greatness of this book as it does not dally on the love only involves it to add the edge. If you really get scared when reading books of a scary nature then be warned this will have you looking over your shoulder all the time. Dead girls are turning up in North London and DI Thorne is investigating but one girl is found alive but unable to move or speak has the killer made a mistake or just reached perfection well you will have to buy this book to find out but you have been warned.

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              The art of inducing fear in a reader via the printed page is a speciality of only a few skilled craftsmen. Mark Billingham is such an author, and Sleepy Head is such a book. The blurb on the jacket warns that we are in for a disturbing experience and that is precisely what we get.